Today: February 21, 2024

Take Shelter

Michael Shannon delivers another inspiring performance in this hugely engrossing and powerful parable.

Michael Shannon delivers another inspiring
performance in this hugely engrossing and powerful parable.

apocalypses seem to be the subject du jour. With Lars Von Trier going all Melancholia
on us recently, Take Shelter dials down the grand dramatics to deliver a more
personal, darkly psychological think-piece that sucks you in with character and
leaves you spinning with tension. In the eye of this particular storm is a
performance tailor-made for Michael
, an actor normally seen picking up the pieces of supporting roles
but here taking the lead with gusto.

Curtis (Shannon)
leads a seemingly content life. Living with his loving wife Sam (Chastain) and young deaf daughter
Hannah (Stewart), who is due an
operation to help her hearing thanks to Curtis’ job health care. They’re living the American Dream. But
the dream rapidly crumbles when Curtis begins to have visions of an apocalyptic
storm building on the horizon. Convinced that the hallucinations and nightmares
are real he begins to reinforce the storm shelter in the back garden. However,
Curtis is all too aware that his mother (Baker)
suffered from paranoid schizophrenia at the same age as he is now but his
obsession seems unable to distinguish truth for fiction.

Forget what you
know about Hollywood apocalypses, Take Shelter puts them all to shame. There is
no action-packed meteor storm on New York, no groundbreaking earthquake in LA
and certainly no flash-freezing of Scotland. Take Shelter is as much about the
fragility of happiness as it is about one man’s struggle with not only the
world around him but his own demons. It is, on some level, a tale of the boy
who cried wolf. But if the boy believes the wolf is real, can you really blame

From its opening
image of Curtis isolated against a biblical thunderstorm in the distance, Take
Shelter is a visual delight. At its best when we enter Curtis’ dreams, the
images of storms and a flock of starlings manically weaving across the sky is
both beautiful and unsettling in a single beat. While writer/director Jeff Nichols manages to lull us in,
it’s never his intent to dazzle us with a bang and blast, but like a
psychologically tortured Terrence Malick,
instead hypnotises us with images of nature far beyond normal human
understanding. What makes the experience all the more evocative is that it is
only Curtis and us who see these images. To all others the sky is perfect blue,
single fluffy clouds the only blemish on an otherwise tranquil day.

Where the film
loses focus is in the second act as Curtis’ life begins to unravel due to his
obsession. Rather than go through a Black Swan-like meltdown, Curtis is aware
that everything might just be in his head. As such the pitfalls of modern life
take their toll first. Curtis loses his job and with it the possibility of
curing his daughter’s hearing. He becomes fearful of those closest to him; his
wife, best friend and even loyal dog. Indeed there is even mention of the
current economic recession as Curtis takes out a loan to build the storm
shelter. It may be admirable to try and address such pitfalls of modern life
but the subject matter is so strong when addressing Curtis’ psyche that it
becomes something of a distraction from the main plot.

Thankfully the cast
is on song to keep the interest firmly piqued. Jessica Chastain, having
something of a fully-fledged break-out year with Tree Of Life, The Help and The
Debt, continues to cement herself as a truly ethereal screen presence. Her
porcelain skin and flame red hair perfectly representing the strength and
vulnerability of Sam. While she is angered by Curtis’ actions she cannot help
but pray for his salvation. However, the film excels thanks to Michael
Shannon’s understated performance. With an expression of pent up anxiety always
painted on his face Shannon has long been cast as the rogue outsider, a man to
be feared or wary of. Here he takes it to empathetic levels. Curtis is only
ever trying to protect that which he holds dear and yet there is doubt always niggling
at the corner of his down-turned mouth as to whether what he sees is a genuine
threat to his family or is it in fact his sanity that is the danger to all he
loves. If nothing else Take Shelter should rightly cement Shannon as an actor
who can not only carry a film but guide it through its most darkly
psychological moments.

Though it lags in
the middle section and never feels the need to travel at anything but a glacial
pace, it does so with enough atmosphere and tension to make Take Shelter an engrossing
and powerful insight into a fractured mind. The climax, though harrowing, would
have benefited from more ambiguity but the end result is hard to ignore and
will leave enough imagery engrained on the mind to last for some time after the
credits role.

Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email:

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